Swans Commentary » swans.com June 30, 2014  



An Unbiased Overview Of Energy And Global Warming


by Glenn Weinreb


Book Review



(Swans - June 30, 2014)   University of California Professor Richard A. Muller is considered to be one of the world's top experts on energy and global warming, advising US presidents on this topic. He does not take a position on any one issue (e.g. "this is bad, that is good"); instead, he talks about how each option works, and its costs.

He recently wrote a fascinating book entitled Energy for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines. This article summarizes his book.


There are three new developments that have occurred during the last five years, summarized below.

(1) Between 2010 and 2012, engineers discovered how to inexpensively squeeze oil from porous shale rock by drilling down, heating the rock to 700 degrees Fahrenheit, and then sucking out the oil. This is called oil shale, and the world reserves (total amount in the ground) is approximately 150 years, instead of the previously thought 30 years, at the current consumption rates. The cost to extract shale oil is approximately $30 per barrel, which is acceptable, given the current $100 per barrel cost.

Larger oil reserves are good for the economy, yet bad for global warming since burning oil emits carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, which heats the planet. The economy does well with cheap energy since companies can then build products at less cost, they can pass this onto the consumer, and consumers buy more when goods are cheap. In summary, we no longer have an oil shortage problem, yet we do have a global warming problem.

(2) We recently discovered how to inexpensively squeeze natural gas out of shale rock (called shale gas), which means our reserves (total in the ground) are five times larger than what we previously thought. Subsequently, we will run out of natural gas in 60 to 300 years instead of 20 to 50 years. Drilling for shale gas involves going down thousands of feet, taking a 90-degree turn toward the horizontal, entering a 10 to 50 meter height layer of shale rock, pumping in water, and extracting natural gas. The pumping of water is referred to as fracking, which is controversial. However, when extensively regulated by the government, we have never seen harm from fracking. Extensive regulation involves requiring drillers to collect all dirty water, clean it in a water treatment plant to the point of being drinkable, and then releasing it into the environment. Extensive regulation also requires government inspectors to monitor the operation and test water emitted from the treatment plant. The additional cost of extensive regulation is small compared to the value of natural gas. The practice of squeezing gas from shale is growing rapidly and has caused natural gas prices to drop. In summary, we no longer have a natural gas shortage.

(3) Over the next 100 years, global warming will be the big problem, not running out of fossil fuels. If our behavior does not change, the additional heat will dry out farms and dramatically reduce the supply of food. There are things that we can do to reduce global warming that are not significantly expensive; therefore, the world will probably avert this disaster.


During the last 50 years, the land heated an average of 2 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9C) and the oceans plus land heated an average of 1.1F (0.6C). We know this because we have weather monitoring stations throughout the world that have recorded temperatures during the last 250 years.

The word "climate" refers to average temperature as it changes over many years, and the word "weather" refers to daily changes. These two are different, and global warming involves "climate."


There is an amazing gas in air called carbon dioxide (CO2) that acts like a blanket around the earth (thermal insulator). If we had no C02 in the atmosphere, the earth would be very cold and would be covered in snow. If we had 3 times more C02, the earth would be very hot and sustain little life. What is amazing is how little C02 you need to keep the earth in the reasonable temperature range, only 300 parts per million (0.03%).

When we burn oil, natural gas, and coal; we put C02 into the atmosphere. The interesting thing about coal is it involves putting twice as much C02 into the atmosphere as oil and natural gas, for the same amount of energy. Volcanic eruptions also dump C02 into the atmosphere, yet that is secondary.

We know how much C02 was in the atmosphere during each of the last 800,000 years due to a technique where we drill into polar ice and measure C02 at each layer within the ice core.

Changes in C02 correspond with changes in temperature; therefore, we know that increased C02 has caused increased temperature.

In summary, global warming is well understood by scientists and their data.


If we continue to emit carbon into the atmosphere at a rate similar to that done previously, we will see another 2 degree F land increase over the next 50 years, and a 4 degree F increase over the next 100 years. Those numbers assume we emit the same amount of CO2 as done over the last 50 years. Yet this is not the case since C02 emissions increase with increased world economy (i.e. with increased GDP).

China emits twice as much carbon into the atmosphere as the USA, and this doubles every 9 years. If they continue to grow like this during the next 18 years, then China's CO2 emissions will increase 4-fold, and we will easily see greater than 10 degree F (5C) land temperature increases over the next 100 years.

C02 output from developing countries like china are increasing rapidly because of burning more cheap coal for electricity. Many developing countries have large populations with rapidly growing economies that are thirsty for more energy. 1 billion Chinese are hot and want to turn on an air-conditioner. Can you blame them? For more details on carbon emissions per country, see

Figure 2.2 on page 11 of the below report shows carbon output per year for China, India, USA and Europe. Notice that China and India are increasing rapidly; and Europe and the Usa are decreasing slightly.

http://edgar.jrc.ec.europa.eu/news_docs/pbl-2013-trends-in-global-co2-emissions-2013-report-1148.pdf (PDF file)


There are several problems caused by an increase in average earth temperature. The primary problem is it causes water to evaporate, which causes land to become more arid, which causes less food to be produced on farms. Other problems involve increased sea level, more storms, and the possibility of a bad feedback loop that causes a big change that kills the majority of people on the planet. The Chinese, and everyone else, are increasingly concerned about this. Therefore, we can expect to see major initiatives introduced over the next 10 years that reduce global warming.


Several countries have fantastic wealth in the form of natural gas and oil reserves. Below are the top five:

—Russia: $40T = 20 * GDP = $230K per person
—Iran: $35T = 63 * GDP = $470K per person
—Venezuela: $35T 35/.38 = 92 *GDP = $1.2M per person
—Saudi Arabia: $33T = 47 * GDP = $1.1M per person
—USA: $28T = 1.5 * GDP = $100K per person
—Canada: $20T = 11 * GDP = $571K per person

To give you an idea of what a trillion dollars is, the total GDP (amount of money produced each year) of the USA is $15T, and the total US debt (money owed by US government) is approximately $17T.

For more details on reserves, see


Low energy costs help businesses grow since they can sell products at low prices. Low energy costs also improve the standard of living for individuals, since they can spend money on things other than energy. For these reasons, the world is hesitant to increase energy costs. Yet not always. Germany, for example, is paying four times more for electricity than Americans since they receive electricity from wind and solar, which is more costly, yet considered to be more green. This is controversial in Germany, since electricity-intensive German businesses (those that use lots of it) cannot compete with companies in other countries that buy cheap electricity. China is the opposite. They are adding one large coal-fired 1 gigawatt (big) electrical power plant each week, which is an amazing construction frenzy. Burning coal puts twice as much carbon into the atmosphere as burning natural gas or oil, for the same amount of electricity. This is controversial in china since they are concerned about global warming and the horrible air quality that is primarily caused by burning coal. Both Germany and China are sweating bullets, yet for different reasons.


The world is currently searching for a solution to the global warming problem that is not too expensive. The cost of electricity in the US is $0.10 per KWHr, and Americans are not inclined to spend too much more. We see how they respond when a politician advocates higher taxes on gasoline or natural gas to reduce consumption -- the measure does not pass.

Kilowatt Hour (KWHr) is a unit of electricity -- sort of like "gallon" with water.

To fix global warm in a way that is supported by the public (i.e., is not too costly), we can do the following:

A) Improved Efficiency Without Spending Money

This is where you get paid to reduce global warming, literally. Here, you spend money to reduce energy consumption, and the saved money pays for the initial investment, in a reasonable period of time.

For example, spend $100 on LED light bulbs, and in return save $10 per year in electricity. Here, your break-even is 10 years; and after that, the bulbs are paid for and your profit is $10 per year, which is a great investment.

Below are several examples of areas where one can make money and reduce global warming at the same time:

—better insulation in homes
—paint roofs lighter colors that reflect the sun
—LED light bulbs
—more efficient air conditioner
—more efficient refrigerator
—more efficient a/c units

If you have a more than 30-year-old air conditioner, refrigerator, or central a/c unit; it is often in your best financial interest to replace it.

The newer central a/c units have variable speed fans instead of one-speed on/off fans. This means they can run at 10% power and put a trickle of heat or cold into your home. This saves energy and also increases comfort since you have less temperature fluctuation between the unit being on and off. In other words, you get more comfort, reduce global warming, and save money; all at the same time.

B) Reduce Global Warming By Spending Money

This is where you spend money to reduce global warming, yet the spent money does not reduce energy costs. An example of this is carbon capture; where you burn natural gas to produce electricity, capture the carbon, and store it. The capture and storage cost another $0.02 per KWHr of electricity ($0.10 instead of $0.08 to consumer).

C) Burn Natural Gas instead of Coal to Produce Electricity

If you burn natural gas instead of coal to make electricity, your carbon output is reduced two-fold for each unit of electricity that you produce. We can expect the Chinese to do this, in a big way, since they are burning much coal and this is causing respiratory ailments, in addition to global warming.

D) Get More Electricity From the Sun

Solar (electricity from the sun) does not contribute to global warming, yet is a costly way to produce electricity -- it cost 3 to 4 times more than burning natural gas. Most people do not want their electric bill increased 3-fold, and therefore are not willing to pay for it. Researchers are making great progress in reducing the cost of solar panels. Perhaps 10 to 20 years from now we will produce solar power at the same cost as from traditional methods; and if this occurs, we can expect to see solar on almost every roof in the world.

E) Get More Electricity From the Wind

Electricity from wind does not contribute to global warming. The big issue with windmills is they need high winds to produce electricity inexpensively. High winds exist off the coast in the ocean, and in a few remote places like north Texas and in-between mountain ranges.

Landowners often do not allow power lines on their land (even when paid); therefore, it is often difficult to run power lines to the windy areas. Legislation that takes right-of-way for power lines would help move this forward.

The cost of electricity from windmills on windy land is similar to burning natural gas ($0.10/KWHr). However, the cost of electricity from windmills off the coast in the ocean is three times more than burning natural gas, due to the difficulty of building and running power wires in the ocean.

Power from wind increases with the cube of the wind velocity. For example, you get 64 times more energy from 20mph wind than from 5mph wind (20*20*20/(5*5*5)). It is windier higher up; therefore, to get high wind, you need a tall windmill (e.g., greater than 40 stories high).

These can extract 30% to 50% of the energy that passes through the circle covered by the blades since they move fast and touch the wind that appears "in-between" the blades.

In summary, squeezing electricity from wind is not expensive when in a windy area on land with a very tall, greater than 400-foot windmill.

F) Get More Electricity From Nuclear Power

Nuclear power does not contribute to global warming and produces electricity at a reasonable price (e.g. $0.10/KWHr). Yet we have seen several bad nuclear disasters and the public is therefore concerned about safety. It is estimated that the Chernobyl disaster induced cancer in approximately 24,000 people and the Fukishima disaster induced cancer in 100 people thus far.

The solution is to build nuclear power plants that inherently cannot melt down due to the properties of their materials. If they get too hot, the materials stop producing energy. Research is making progress in this area and already several countries are building nuclear power plants that cannot melt down (Google "Small Modular Reactor").

Two issues involving nuclear are the storage of spent nuclear fuel and the risk that nuclear fuel will be captured by terrorists, refined further, and turned into a nuclear bomb.

Nuclear scientists are currently working on developing a nuclear reactor that does not create spent toxic fuel and does not use fuel that can be further refined to make a bomb. This research could possibly solve our long term limited fossil fuel problem and global warming problem. Don't be surprised if an exciting development occurs some time over the next 20 years. An example is controlled fusion where we detonate tiny specks of hydrogen 1000 times a second to create heat. The laser that does this is not large enough to denote more than a speck. There is no nuclear fuel and no possibility of meltdown. Scientists are working on this, and other techniques, to create energy safely and without global warming. Yet they might be 10 to 50 years away from a solution.


Automobiles can be powered by gasoline, natural gas, or electricity. Many taxis and buses are powered by natural gas since the resulting cost-per-mile is less than gasoline. The disadvantage is the fuel tank is 3 times larger for the same range.

Due to our newly found reserves of gasoline and natural gas, we could go either way during the next 100 years, if we were not concerned about global warming.

Hybrid electric cars are cost effective since their battery is paid for with better gas mileage. Their batteries are relative small. For example, the Prius can only move 10 miles at 25 mph on electricity alone. This is good, because it means the battery cost is not too high, and can be paid for with money saved from using less gas. The reason hybrid cars use less gas is because they capture energy when they brake, and they use the electric motor when one accelerates. And accelerating only with a gas engine is very inefficient.

All Electric cars that plug into the wall and run only on electricity are not cost effective. The cost-per-mile of an all gas car is approximately $0.10 per mile ($3.50/gallon, 35mpg). In comparison, the Tesla all electric lithium-ion car battery cost $45,000 and needs replacing after 65,000 miles, which means the cost per mile for the battery alone is $0.70 per mile ($45k/65k miles). And this does not include the cost of the electricity.

If one used very cheap batteries, such as lead-acid, then the cost-per-mile would be much better, yet the range would be much worse (e.g. 40 miles instead of Tesla's 200 miles). Cheap lead-acid holds 1/5th as much energy as lithium-ion, for the same weight, yet is 1/10th the cost.

Over the next 20 years, expect to see the following trends in transportation:

—More hybrid cars that get > 50mpg, since the additional cost of the electrical gear is paid for by saved gasoline.
— More cars powered by natural gas, since their cost-per-mile is less than gasoline.
—More all electric cars with low-cost batteries, with low range (e.g. 40 miles). These are plugged into the wall at night, and used for everyday short range commuting and shopping.
—More families with one long-range car and one short-range car; instead of two long-range cars.


During the next 20 years, we will reduce global warming with a shift from coal to natural gas, since natural gas is of similar cost, we have plenty of it, and it contributes less to global warming. After that, we will reduce global warming with more solar, wind and nuclear. Moving from coal to natural gas over the next 20 years gives researchers time to develop less costly and safer solar, wind and nuclear. We no longer have an energy crisis where we run out of fossil fuel, due to new techniques for squeezing natural gas and oil out of the ground. The world does have a path forward, and as the effects of global warming become more evident, governments will be more focused on reducing C02 emissions.


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About the Author

Glenn Weinreb is the founder of GW Instruments (www.gwinst.com), which specializes in the design and manufacture of data acquisition and control interfaces for personal computers. He lives in Cambridge, MA.   (back)


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Published June 30, 2014